Beginning today, March 22, the shores of Maine’s tidal streams will become ragged with fyke nets, mesh mouths open wide to the sea, hoping to funnel migrating elvers into their holds. An elver is a baby American eel, Latin name Anguilla rostrata. They hatch somewhere in the Sargasso Sea near the Bermuda Triangle and drift north on ocean currents. As they drift, the larvae grow and by the time they reach the coast of Maine, they look like eels except they’re only about two or three inches long and clear as glass, hence the name “glass eels.” A dark, silvery line runs the length of their transparent body, and two black eye spots glisten like drops of wet ink.
The elvers are caught, bought, sold, and shipped to China and other Asian countries, where they are stocked in aquaculture ponds and grown to adult size, at which point they are sold to markets and restaurants in Asia and beyond. A Maine elver might even make its way across the ocean and back and land on a plate of sushi in Maine as unagi!
The elver fishery is a relatively new fishery in Maine, having developed in the early 1970s, and since then has been through several booms and busts. The 2011 elver season saw a record price of $1,000 a pound, the harbors alive at night, lanterns twinkling in the mist and the shadows of men sweeping nets through the incoming tide.
Maine’s elver season runs from March 22 through May 31. For more information on the elver fishery in Maine, click here.